This first appeared on The Writing of a Wisoker on the Loose in August 2011.
Writing is an amazing experience which is all the more amazing due to the contradictions involved. On one hand, writing involves vast depths and great bursts of creativity; on the other, it’s about organization, discipline, and the ability to get ideas into form. A good writer manages to be both wildly creative and organized — and I’m sure there are times we’ve felt like we only have one of those traits, or worse, neither, in our lives.
I’m a technology Project Manager, and I think the techniques that make video games and mobile advertising possible can help you, the writer.
It might sound a bit crazy, but when you think about it, there are a lot of similarities between writing and programming. Both are about creating ways to get information to people. Creating novels and making video games are also highly imaginative exercises that require discipline. Scripting a play and writing scripts for databases both involve the challenge of knowing exactly what you want, but finding that the journey there is often not what you expected. The programmer and the writer both deal with the paradoxes of needing to be both creative and organized.
If you’ve not worked in software, just imagine the effort over the years it’s taken to make software that people can use easily. It was a mix of art and science, imagination and planning, that got us to the age of iPad and Smartphones. One of the things that contributed to the age of modern software is a process called SCRUM.
Many years ago, in the 90’s, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland created a process to deal with the unpredictable and unique nature of software development, to support its need for both creativity and organization. This method was called SCRUM after the rugby term, and it’s the method I use every day.
When I learned about SCRUM at a Project Management Institute meeting, it changed my life. I use a variant of it to help with my writing and creative work. I’m going to describe a “Writer’s SCRUM” for you in the hopes it can help you out.
All it takes is a few steps.
The Backlog is a list of everything you have to do for your writing project or projects, from plotting your book to contacting your agent. These tasks and needs are ranked in order of priority, with no item of equal rank — looking at it, you know immediately what your top issue is. The items in question are best done as stories: “I will finish this outline so I can move on to the writing” or “I will end this chapter on the cliffhanger to evenly balance out the novel.”
When you have your backlog, you then start Sprints. Sprints are set period of times you work in — most programmers use two week sprints, though for writing I use one month. A Sprint is a designated period during which you work on specific goals, and you do not vary their length.
So when your Sprint starts, say the first Sunday of every month, you then look at your backlog and decide how many of the topmost items you can do in that timeframe. You cannot skip any items in your Backlog. This helps you get what’s important done, and stops procrastination.
Then you work through the chosen items, called a Sprint Backlog, in whatever order you want. You can work the items in bits and pieces or in sequential order, whatever you prefer. Your overriding goal is to have them all done at the end of the Sprint.
During the Sprint, you do not change your work items unless there’s a serious crisis. You may find new work is required in order to get your chosen tasks done; you may find one task is not necessary. You may even find you have more time to do other things. But you don’t radically shift your plans — this keeps you focused, and means if you truly must change your plans,you acknowledge you’re starting the Sprint over.
Sometimes the reasons we have rules is to know when to break them.
When you’re done with each Sprint it’s time for . . .
THE SPRINT REVIEW:
You review how you did, see what you did right and wrong, and make notes for improvement. Then you look at your remaining Backlog, add new items, re-prioritize it based on anything you learned, and start all over again.
SCRUM works. I’ve put it into practice on the job and at home. SCRUM focuses you on balancing priorities and freedom, responsibility and leeway, and it’s all about knowing what’s the most important thing you have to do. SCRUM fully accepts that a super-organized plan will probably fall apart, and replaces it with gradual, iterative planning, feedback, and responsibility.
For me, realizing SCRUM works for writing and all related tasks (like websites, for example) helped me a great deal. I don’t become my own hated taskmaster, I know what’s coming, and I am clear on what I’m doing when.
SCRUM works in software — I’ve used it for years effectively. I believe it can work for your writing, too.
Give it a try. I think you’ll like the results!
Steven Savage in his own words:
I’m Steven Savage, and I am Geek 2.0.
OK … that sounds either pretentious or obscure, and I try not to be either too much. So what do I mean by Geek 2.0?
Geek 2.0 is a lifestyle. It’s about taking the geeky values of technology, knowledge, creativity, and media as far as possible. It’s a way of life – and a way of contributing to society.
I believe in taking Geekiness farther – into the next iteration, into 2.0.
Steven Savage is the author of the Fan to Pro blog and books (Unlocking Career Insights With Your Hobbies; Convention Career Connection; Focused Fandom: Cosplay, Costuming, and Careers; Focused Fandom: Fanart, Fanartists, and Careers; Inhuman Resources; and Progeek Rising), has his own web site, and incidentally is the mind behind the popular Seventh Sanctum site. He also writes for Nerd Caliber and Comics Bulletin.